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Victories in Academic Freedom

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You may have followed the case of Lora Burnett (better known on Twitter by L.D. Burnett) and how Collin College in Texas fired her because she tweeted that Mike Pence has “a little demon mouth,” which led some right-wing Texas legislator to call her college president and demand she be fired. And of course said president was happy to do so because he really likes to fire faculty. Well, Burnett has a big platform of her own and so this became a national story. That didn’t help her not get fired. But it did draw a lot more attention down on the college than the president thought it would. She got representation and now she is getting paid.

Today, Lora Burnett, a former Collin College history professor fired for tweets critical of the college administration and of former Vice President Mike Pence, accepted the college’s offer to pay $70,000 and attorneys’ fees, bringing her First Amendment lawsuit to an end. 

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education represented Burnett. Although the college has not admitted liability, it has effectively chosen to concede the lawsuit by offering judgment in favor of Burnett. 

“I hope I am the last professor that Collin College fires for exercising her First Amendment rights, but if history is any indication, no one who has an opinion is safe from Collin College leaders’ thin skin,” said Burnett. “We should all be protective of the rights granted by the Constitution — and stand up to defend them when they’re violated.”

During the vice presidential debate in October 2020, Burnett tweeted: “The moderator needs to talk over Mike Pence until he shuts his little demon mouth up.” The tweet was picked up by conservative media outlets and outraged Texas State Rep. Jeff Leach, who texted Collin College President Neil Matkin to ask if Burnett was “paid with taxpayer dollars.” Matkin responded that he would “deal with it.” 

Burnett landed on Matkin’s radar again in January 2021 with a tweet countering his assessment that the pandemic was “blown utterly out of proportion.” Burnett shared a link to an obituary of a former Collin professor, tweeting “Another @collincollege professor has died of COVID.” The college responded by issuing Burnett a formal warning.

During this time, FIRE wrote repeated letters to the college president, advising him of Burnett’s rights and reminding him of the college’s constitutional obligations. Public institutions are bound by the First Amendment; as such, it is unconstitutional to terminate a faculty member based on comments about matters of public concern. 

In February, Leach prematurely tweeted that Burnett had been fired, which he characterized as a “BIG WIN.” Nine days later, the college followed through. In response, FIRE and Burnett filed a First Amendment lawsuit.

“FIRE is thrilled Dr. Burnett has been vindicated in her pursuit of justice against the college and Neil Matkin,” said FIRE attorney Greg Greubel. “Lora bravely stood up not just for her own rights, but for the rights of all professors who encounter censorship by their administrations. Dr. Burnett’s victory should serve as a warning to overly zealous administrators across the country: if you punish a professor for speaking out, there will be consequences.”   

Of course this is just one case of so many. Republicans fund the heck out of all of this with dark money and getting a corpse every now and then is their top priority. I’m sure I’m going to have to go down this road at some point unless I shut up which obviously is not going to happen. But we have to fight back and we have to note the victories when they happen.

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